Photo Gallery: Victims of Neo-Nazis, and the State

Foto: Hannibal Hanschke/ dpa

The Fragility of Trust Neo-Nazi Victims Seek Peace with Germany

Semiya Simsek's family was torn apart 13 years ago when her father was murdered in Nuremberg by a neo-Nazi terror cell. Even worse, German authorities for years suspected the family had been involved. Now, as one of the killing spree's perpetrators is set to go on trial, the Simseks are trying to find peace with Germany.

The toothless old woman is singing in a rasping voice and beating a tambourine, as she performs the song of the henna night, the bride's last night in her parent's home. "Yüksek, yüksek tepelere...," she sings, as the other women join in, dancing around the woman seated in the middle, Semiya Simsek, wearing her wedding dress. She is the daughter of Enver Simsek, the son of a shepherd from the village of Salur, who went to Germany to find a better life. And died there.

"Oh, if my father had a horse, he would ride to me," the old woman sings. But no horse is bringing back Semiya's father, who is buried in the cemetery a few steps away. The house stood empty for almost 13 years when Simsek was in Germany. But then he came home, with a crushed skull and three bullets in his head.

They had said their goodbyes after it happened: his widow Adile, beside herself with sadness and fear, the two children Semiya and Kerim, 14 and 13, his brothers and the men of the village, all of them praying silently.

Today they are dancing in Enver's house, the dwelling filled with life once again -- with love, tears, hopes, old pain, images of Semiya under her veil and memories of Enver under a white shroud. They can still picture their father lying on the bed brought from Frankfurt, with its rubbed varnish finish, under a ceiling made of mud and the trunks of poplar trees. Enver had grown prosperous as a flower merchant in faraway Germany. He had made the pilgrimage to Mecca with his wife, and people looked up to him in the village. His honor had been soiled by the mystery of his death. After all, who is shot and killed for nothing?

Look, says Semiya today, my father wasn't the way you think he was. I'm not the daughter of an adulterer, liar and drug dealer. They shot him to death because he was Turkish.

On Saturday, Sept. 9, 2000, passersby reported to police that there was an abandoned flower stand on the outskirts of Nuremberg. There was a folding table and there were bouquets under an umbrella, and there was also a white Mercedes Sprinter van with the words "Simsek Flowers" painted on its side. Everything was in its place, except the vendor.

In the Back of the Van

They found him in the back of the delivery van, lying among the sunflowers, lilies and chrysanthemums. He had been shot to death with eight bullets at close range. His murderers had continued to fire at him when he was already on the ground. Simsek was alive but no longer responsive. He died two days later.

The murder weapon, a Ceska pistol, finally turned up 11 years and nine murders later, in the wreckage of an apartment in the eastern German city of Zwickau. Beate Zschäpe had set the apartment on fire, after the police had found the bodies of her apartment-mates, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos. Mundlos had shot Böhnhardt and then turned the gun on himself. Enver Simsek, as his daughter Semiya learned from a television report in November 2011, was the first of 10 victims in a series of murders committed by a neo-Nazi group calling itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU).  While the police were investigating her family, her father's murderers had disappeared from sight and managed to remain undetected for almost 14 years.

In that moment, it seemed as if her life was falling apart. After her father's death, Semiya had begun to erect internal walls, living her life in defense mode, as she fought off fears, suspicions and rumors. Now she is fighting to leave it all behind.

It's a Sunday afternoon in 2013. Semiya is visiting her aunt and uncle in Friedberg, a town in the western German state of Hesse. Her brother and two cousins are also there. They are watching a video of the extended family at a barbecue next to a lake, when the children were still young. "Look how sweet they are!" the uncle says proudly. Then Enver appears, cleaning fish, eating melon and playing with Semiya, his little princess. After the meal, everyone dances in the grass.

The family watches these old videos again and again. "It's unbelievable what a happy life we had," says Semiya.

Until recently, when someone asked how their father had died, they would say it was "an accident." Now Semiya wants everyone to know about the injuries of the past. She wants Germany and its legal system to take responsibility. Semiya, together with journalist Peter Schwarz, has written a book. She likens the work to a "bucket of vomit." Fortunately, this isn't apparent in the book.

'The Good Victims'

She immersed herself in the files for weeks, hoping to reclaim her life and purify it, and clarify her relationship with Germany, the country she calls home. In part, she is motivated to do so because Germany had suddenly discovered a new relationship with her. For years, no one seemed interested in the series of murders. And then, from one day to the next, she was inundated with sympathy and compassion. "Suddenly we were no longer seen practically as perpetrators, but as the good victims."

They were invited to receptions with the German president, the Bavarian interior minister met with them to exchange ideas, memorial trees were planted in Nuremberg for victims of the NSU killing spree, and strangers sent her letters, writing: "Germany is also your country. You are part of it!"

"I could have used the sympathy back then," says Semiya. She is pleased about the letters, but some encounters make her feel uncomfortable in a new way. She doesn't want to be used as a stage prop in an emotional retrospective. She says: "I will evaluate the big words. And I'll look closely at how Germany conducts the trial."

The trial against the accomplices of her father's murders begins in Munich on April 17.  Semiya Simsek will be there. As a joint plaintiff, she has the right to review court documents and ask questions: Why did the neo-Nazis pick my father? What did they know about my family? How could they have remained underground for so long? She even invited her German attorneys to her wedding. She wants answers to her questions.

She doesn't want to be a victim anymore, not even a good one.

Interrogation Nightmares

When it happened, more than 13 years ago, her mother Adile, exhausted after selling flowers all day, was sitting in front of the TV with her feet up, waiting for her husband to come home. When the doorbell rang at shortly before 10 p.m., two policemen walked into her living room, carrying weapons and speaking curtly. Adile understood that Enver was half-dead. Was it an accident, she asked? No, he had been shot. She collapsed. By whom? Why? That was what the police wanted to know from her. Adile realized that they didn't believe her, that they couldn't see her fear and pain, and that she was a suspect.

She was questioned for hours at a time in the ensuing months. She still has nightmares about how the officers banged their fists on the table and shouted: It's time you told us what you know!

On other occasions, officers would visit her at home, sit on her sofa, drink her tea, eat her baked goods and torture her with their suspicions. Your husband, Frau Simsek, had a dark side, they would say: alcohol, a gambling addiction, the Mafia, drug-dealing. The family refused to believe it. On the other hand, they also trusted the authorities, which only made things worse. Today the Simseks ask themselves whether the police would have leveled the same suspicions if the victim had been German.

The investigations cast a posthumous shadow over the father's life, pouring the insidious poison of doubt over everything that had been true and beautiful before: the family's love, its lightheartedness and its cohesion. "How long does trust last?" Semiya asks in her book. "How often do you have to beat it until it becomes thin and breaks?"

According to the interrogation records, when the inspector asked Adile about her marriage, she said: "My husband and I never had any problems. I loved him very much. We had a good marriage. I don't know why I should go on living." The inspector wanted to know whether they had sex regularly. Some of the interrogations lasted an entire day and Adile was only allowed to go home for prayers. The police bugged Enver's delivery van, and for months they tapped the family's phones, even though they had no concrete evidence against them.

They also questioned the family's friends and relatives, asking questions like: "Can you imagine that Enver had a mistress? That Adile and her brothers were capable of murder?" News of the case -- that German officials suspected the family of being involved in the murder -- ultimately reached Enver's native village of Salur.

A Broken Bond with Germany

The police confronted Adile's brother and showed him a photo of a young woman. "According to our investigation, Enver had a girlfriend," they told him. "I can't believe it," he said, "but if it's true, his death would have been justified." They said to Adile: "We have learned that Enver brought cutting agents for heroin from the Netherlands to Germany." "I can't imagine that," she replied. After all, she said, they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and had led a godly life. Was it supported with drug money all those years? Impossible.

But how long does trust last?

"Frau Simsek begins to cry," the interrogation report reads. "She has an angry outburst and rips up the photo of Enver lying on the desk in front of her."

The second murder occurred three-quarters of a year later and no connection between the victims was found. The Simseks slowly felt the pressure of the investigation subsiding; the police, it would seem, no longer suspected the family in Enver's murder. Nevertheless, the cloud of suspicion lasted for the next 10 years, and they weren't the only ones it affected.

Nine of the victims had only one thing in common: They looked Turkish. Yet the "Baden-Württemberg Operational Case Analysis" professed to have uncovered other shared elements. According to the 2007 report, the victims were likely part of a group that earned "a living with illegal activities." The only possible suspects, the report concluded, were those who did "not feel in the least bit bound to our norms and values."

The killing spree continued, dubbed the "Döner Murders" in the press. An article in SPIEGEL wrote that the killers were protected by the "almost impenetrable parallel world of the Turks."

"We felt left alone and vulnerable," says Semiya. "It wasn't just us, but all Turks. Because it didn't stop." And because it seemed that they were the only ones to be outraged by the fact that someone was going around the country, murdering foreigners.

But whom did they suspect? "At first we thought there might be a dispute among flower merchants. Then, after the second murder, we thought it might be someone who had had bad experiences with Turks," says Semiya. Perhaps a madman. But Nazis? That was impossible, they thought for a long time.

'We Trusted Them'

The police had always said: What's missing is a clue linking the killings. "We thought to ourselves: They're the experts, and they should know. We trusted them."

On the day before her wedding, Semiya went to the grave, where wild herbs and flowers were growing. She had been going there for years, whenever she went to Turkey on vacation. She would pray at the grave and speak to her father: We miss you. How could you leave us so alone? Why did this happen?

After Simsek's death, Adile's brother tried to continue running the business. But he became fearful during trips to the wholesale flower market in Rotterdam. He would stand at a rest area and think to himself: Is someone going to come up to me and ask me to transport drugs? And if I say no, will they shoot me?

The family lived in constant fear. They began locking their doors and looking around nervously while walking outside at night. They couldn't keep the business afloat. After living without financial worries, they were now welfare recipients with a mountain of debt. Adile despaired at the prospect of going it alone with the children.

No one helped them after Enver's death, no trauma therapy specialists and no victims' assistance organizations. The other families were in no better shape, as they struggled with the perception of lost honor, doubts and feelings of shame. One family even had to clean up the father's blood from the floor where he had died.

After a while, the family stopped looking for answers. Adile's depression became permanent. She moved back to Turkey, not to the house in Salur, where she had nightmares about her dead husband, but to the city of Isparta. The children studied in Germany, and Semiya became a social worker. While on vacation in Turkey, she fell in love with a man named Fatih. The suspicions against her father began to fade into the fabric of everyday life.

On that Friday evening in November, when the case was finally solved, everything came rushing back: the images of her father in the hospital, the blood-soaked pillow, her despairing mother, the interrogations, the fears, the sense of powerlessness and the question mark at the edge of her consciousness: What if he did have a dark side, after all?

'Killed Him a Second Time'

Now, finally, everyone could see that there was no blemish on his reputation at all.

After their father's murder had been solved, Semiya's brother Kerim felt sick for weeks, and Semiya went to a friend's house to cry on her shoulder. "The neo-Nazis shot him to death," says Semiya. But she blames others for the question marks and the loss of trust. "The German authorities killed him a second time."

Enver's daughter has returned to the village of her ancestors in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains for her wedding. The village is covered with deep snowdrifts in the winter, and in the summer the trees are heavy with fruit, as the men sit in front of the café in their striped shirts and flat caps. Enver was a respected man in Salur. He didn't forget his village, buying computers for the school and donating money for new wells and the local mosque. The villagers had nothing but praise for him. But after he died, people wondered: Is it really possible to make so much money with flowers?

Then they heard Semiya speaking on television a year ago, at a memorial ceremony in Berlin to honor the victims of the NSU killing spree. Enver's daughter spoke after the German chancellor. The café in Salur was packed, with everyone looking up at the TV set hanging from the ceiling in the corner. "We were unable to mourn him and say goodbye in peace. For 11 years, we were not even allowed to be victims with a clear conscience," Semiya said in faraway Berlin. The villagers also felt that her words were directed at them. "We all had goose bumps," one resident recalls.

Now the people of Salur are paying close attention to Germany's handling of the affair. "They dragged his name through the mud, without any evidence," said one villager. "It was character assassination, a disgrace for the village." Another resident said: "The Turks were portrayed as criminals. Now they see that we're not so bad, after all. We were pleased that Merkel realized this and apologized."

But can the German government be trusted? Hadn't some of the records pertaining to the case been destroyed?

On the day of the memorial service in Berlin, Semiya also wasn't sure what to think of this new Germany. The German president had held a reception that morning, with the country's top politicians in attendance. Andreas Vosskuhle, the president of the Federal Constitutional Court, came to the table where the Simseks were sitting. Vosskuhle is the highest-ranking representative of the German judiciary. He said he found it incomprehensible that such a thing could have happened and assured the family that other German officials were dismayed as well. Semiya told him how the families had demonstrated in Kassel, a city in central Germany, in 2006. "First the Jews, then the Turks. Who's next?" one of the banners read. By that time, they were convinced that the murderers were right-wing extremists.

Betrayal and Conspiracy

"Really? Five years ago?" Vosskuhle asked, sounding shocked. "We never read anything about that, or at least I didn't."

"No one took us seriously," Semiya replied. "No one believed us." Vosskuhle said nothing in response.

For 11 years, she had been seen as the daughter of a drug dealer, and now she was sitting with the country's political elites, as a family member of an innocent murder victim whose death was being commemorated by an orchestra playing works by Johann Sebastian Bach. The chancellor asked the families for forgiveness for the false suspicions. Children came into the room carrying candles, and Semiya saw politicians with tears in their eyes.

After the event, Chancellor Angela Merkel went up to Semiya and told her how pleased she was that she had referred to Germany as "my country" in her remarks. I wanted to be able to trust again, Semiya thought, but it's easy to make an apology.

The chancellor had promised that the investigation would now be conducted "at full speed." But what Semiya has heard since then is a lot of mutual recrimination and reports of failure: shredded documents, scandals involving confidential informants, police officers in the Ku Klux Klan, and theories of betrayal and conspiracy.

On the evening before their wedding, Semiya and Kerim are sitting with their attorneys, Jens Rabe and Stephan Lucas, on the terrace of the house that was abandoned for so long. There is a view of the mountains where Enver tended sheep as a boy, the same Enver Simsek whose death will now be part of one of the biggest criminal trials in postwar German history, with a 488-page indictment and hundreds of binders filled with documents. Enver's children are taking every opportunity to prepare for the trial. The attorneys are already almost part of the family.

So Near, So Far Away

Shortly after the murder series had been cleared up, Semiya watched the video manifesto -- complete with music from the Pink Panther cartoon -- which Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving member of the neo-Nazi terror cell, had dropped into the mail after the deaths of her partners. In it, the killers looked at her father as he lay in his blood, bent over him and took a picture.

"I feel no hatred toward that woman," says Semiya. "I can't imagine what it will be like when we look each other in the eye. But I want to see justice served. I want to know whether the authorities covered anything up. I want to have closure." Attorney Rabe is skeptical. "It won't be a grand truth commission," he says. "It's just a criminal trial. Of course, one can try to criticize the government for its failings. But the defendant is Beate Zschäpe, not the Federal Republic of Germany."

Before the wedding, the attorneys visit Enver's brothers, hoping to convince them to testify in court. One of the brothers, Yusuf, still tends sheep in the mountains and lives in a simple mud house, where they sit on the floor. His wife brings us tea. "I have carried the pain of Enver's loss with me for 12 years," he says. "His child is getting married tomorrow, and her father won't be there. The child will feel a great emptiness." There are tears running down his face.

"If my brother hadn't died, I would have been an important man in the village, and not someone people point at," says Yusuf. But why go to court? "I don't trust Germany. It was Germans who killed my brother." In the end, however, the family council decides that everyone will participate -- for the family honor, for Enver and for his children.

In the afternoon, a marching band performs in the courtyard, with drums, cymbals and a wind instrument called a Zurna. The wedding party assembles for the giving away of the bride, an old ceremony. Traditionally, the father of the bride places a red ribbon around his daughter, as a sign of fertility, and entrusts her to the care of her future family, in a ritual that is both a farewell and a new beginning. There is no specific place in the house where the ritual is supposed to occur, and the wedding guests, looking serious, stand in front of the door to the room where Enver's body was laid out, wrapped in a shroud nine meters (30 feet) long. Semiya's brother Kerim, his face ashen with exertion, assumes the role of the father.

Never was the father so near, and yet so far away, as in that moment.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.